And here we are at the end of another #AtoZchallenge. This is my second, and it has been a bit of a slog, but as someone pointed I have no one but myself to blame for choosing a theme that needed some thought and research. I’ve also gone a bit over the suggested 300 words/per post that AtoZ central recommend, but there we go. A proper reflection post will turn up at the appropriate time…One of the things that has gone rather differently than I expected has been the…shape of the month. I’d intended that the month would be a lot more balanced in terms of source, heh, material, and that there would be a better mix of the different aspects of Materials Science – properties, processing, (micro)structure and performance, with a bit of characterisation thrown in. This, I think has got a little bit lost. I don’t know whether it matters, but the focus has become much more about the materials themselves, with a couple of specific artefacts thrown in for good measure. Here, in the last post, we consider one last artefact, but one which draws on some of the things that we’ve talked about previously.
Two themes that have come out quite strongly are ‘swords’ and ‘special metals’. Back at ‘F’ I put forward the idea that there might be a problem with the fantasy stalwart of the Flaming Sword. A blade that burns is going to have to deal with the effect on the ‘temper’ of the blade, which is to say that the microstructure that you have spent a long time carefully preparing is going to get wrecked if you set your blade on fire. We could move away from iron-based metallurgy and think about using other metals, which is what Stephen Lawhead does in his ‘Dragon King Trilogy’. This series is not considered to be his best work, his retelling of the Arthurian legends usually taking this accolade – but it does have a good story, some interesting characters -and a flaming sword. (If you read the books then the description is open to some interpretation, and ‘flaming’ could be ‘a divine light’ – there is certainly what we might call a metaphysical angle, but bear with me).
The main character of the trilogy is Quentin, who we follow from a teenager, through to a young man and finally the titular Dragon King. I was going to say that in the middle book, the kingdom is in peril, but I realised that that was pretty fatuous as that describes about 64% of all Fantasy fiction. The kingdom is indeed in peril, again, and there is a prophecy, and there is a group of people who are determined to save the day. At this point, Quentin has an arm that has been damaged quite badly and is beyond conventional medicine, certainly within a fantasy setting, but he’s a good lad and when his mentor, Durwin, suggests that they try and make the sword Zhaligheer, spoken of in the prophecy, he’s up for the attempt. The sword requires the legendary metal, lanthanil, which Durwin thinks might be found in an abandoned underground city. Lanthanil, “the stone which glows”, is described as being white metal that in a pure form glows with a radiant light.
As was pointed out in the comment section of a previous post, there is science, and there is writer’s science. To some extent we can just look at the story as a good yarn, but that’s not what these blog posts are about! Lanthanil has some characteristics in common with lanthanum, the first of the lanthanide series of elements. They’re both silvery metals that are relatively ductile, but lanthanum tarnishes (oxidises) rapidly in air which lanthanil does not, and is soft, which wouldn’t be much good for a sword. The melting temperature is about right and of course it is difficult to measure metaphysical properties, let alone compare them. One of the main objections to lanthanil as a material though is it is just sitting around waiting to be mined, much like the classic adventure stories of gold mines. Gold is of course a relatively inert metal and does not tarnish, but it is relatively rare to find it in big lumps.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think we still have to abide by traditional metallurgical rules, in this case at least, and a real flame rather than a radiant glow is still going to cause problems with the temper. Zhaligheer is a symbol as a much as a weapon and when Quentin makes a serious moral mistake in the third book, the sword ceases to shine. Once he has redeemed himself the sword starts shining again, so I guess that is the very pointed comment that perhaps we’re not dealing with a real material…F&SF represents a spectrum, and there will always be new interpretations of psychic unicorns and the like, but a sword is a sword, and iron is iron, as a writer, this is the sort of stuff that you need to get right.